A Smartphone-Free Childhood

The campaign for a #smartphonefreechildhood has truly captured the public’s attention. Children’s use of screens, social media etc is a topic that I’ve been increasingly asked about in recent years and it’s something that a lot of parents worry about.

It’s crucial to first grasp the primary issue identified by the campaign: smartphones give young children premature access to social media and websites they aren’t developmentally equipped to handle, and this is resulting in harm.

The smartphone-free childhood campaign proposes establishing an age limit for smartphone ownership, advocating for it to be set at 14, along with raising social media age restrictions to 16. 

As a research psychologist, I generally believe in educating children to navigate the world they’re entering and supporting parents in guiding them through new technology. However, the overwhelming amount of evidence that we now have access to (such as the fastest-growing category for skincare products being 8 to 10-year-old girls), highlights the impact of exposure to influencers and social media on young children’s development. Access to these platforms enables bad actors (and yes, I’m looking at you cosmetic and skin care brands) to target children successfully specifically because of their lack of social, emotional, and cognitive maturity.

While skincare may seem like a minor issue, it’s indicative of larger mental health concerns like body image, self-esteem, cyberbullying, and negative social media comments. These are all exacerbated by children being online before they’re ready. You only need to look back through the recent news headlines to see increasing concerns about gender identity, self-harm, and teenage suicide. The statistics can no longer be ignored.

I used to hope that tech companies and social media platforms would step up to protect children from harm, but if they won’t (and all the signs are that they are not paying anything more than lip-service to this issue), we need public support to pressure the government into action and I will do what I can to support this campaign.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not advocating for a screen-free childhood – that’s a much more radical and, in my opinion misguided and impractical initiative.


At the Good Play Guide, we promote a balanced play diet, acknowledging the benefits of screens when they have carefully designed quality content for children. It’s about the activities that the screens facilitate, rather than the presence of screens themselves. Quality digital content on responsible platforms, managed proactively by parents can help children understand their world, relate to others, be introduced to new topics and ideas, keep in touch with family and friends and access learning at their own pace in their own way which I know has made a massive difference to children with autism who don’t learn well in a social, classroom setting.

Given all of the evidence I’ve seen on a range of wellbeing issues, it is now time to advocate for sensible age limits on smartphone access to ensure children develop healthily and without the burden of anxiety and mental health issues prevalent in today’s teenagers.

Mental health is a complex issue, but restricting smartphones for children under 14 is a crucial step in combating poor mental health. Let’s not demonise screens entirely but advocate for responsible usage and safeguards to support our children’s holistic development. I think a similar evidence-based approach needs to be adopted for AI relating to children too. Ideally, evidence first, rather than unfettered access until it’s been proved harmful.

This poses an interesting challenge for us as a research agency, specialising in children. I do think that children should have access to digital games and be able to develop their understanding of technology so they are equipped for an increasingly digital world, and we support app and game developers in doing this responsibly. 

We also support hardware manufacturers and it will be this industry that could make the difference in this fight for our children’s wellbeing. There’s a whole new product category that is waiting to be developed that bridges the gap, responsibly between a brick phone and a smart phone that would give children an introduction to the world of smart phones and let them benefit from the positive features of those devices without giving them unfettered access to social media and unsuitable web content. 

If there are any manufacturers out there who would like support with any of the above, please contact us using the form at the bottom of this post.